Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Allons, Enfants de la Patrie...

Le jour de gloire est arrive! (Sorry about the lack of accent marks. I can't figure out how to get them in there. Oh, and by the way, the photo is of the building where I used to live in Paris. I thought it would set this post up nicely.)

It is with a genuine sense of shame that I write that the day of glory has indeed arrived--and passed, actually--and I almost forgot about it. It's the very early morning of July 15 in Paris as I type this, so what we call Bastille Day here in the US is over in France. La Fete Nationale, or the national celebration, is France's July 4, although the history of it is far more complicated than our relatively simple story of the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Indeed, the French celebrate on July 14 the symbolic beginning of an era of pretty much complete chaos, as well as a popular revolution that didn't even stick. Somehow, they've managed to turn terror and brutality into a holiday with fireworks and a parade. (Seriously, how French is that? Very.)

OK, I know that the French Revolution was a major turning point in the history of Western civilization. I get that. But Napoleon, a product of the revolution himself (and basically the father of modern France, even though he wasn't ethnically French), ended up crowning himself emperor and terrorizing Europe.

So much for all that power-to-the-people stuff, then. The French are now on their fifth republic, the first four having collapsed in one way or another, usually quite tragically and spectacularly. But even though the original republic the French tried to establish after the revolution didn't take in the long run, at least there was gruesome violence and terror in the streets for a while there. Yay! Fireworks!

Seriously, though, the occasion of Bastille Day--which, seriously, the French almost never call it--invites me to pontificate about a few things. Not that I need an invitation to do that, of course; anybody who has read this blog at all will realize that.

Anyway, first off, American and British tourists, please stop asking where in Paris the Bastille--as in the actual structure that the revolutionaries stormed in 1789--is located. It's not there.

Now, there is a Bastille Metro station, as well as an area known as Bastille, which is full of a lot of great bars, restaurants and clubs. It's a lot of fun, actually, and there's a big opera house there, too (not the famous one--the other one). There's also a huge monument that has nothing at all to do with the revolution (of course--what else would you expect?). The Bastille area is, in fact, where the Bastille prison used to be...a long time ago.

But--and this is important--the Bastille itself isn't there anymore. It hasn't been for 220 years. It was demolished in 1789...at the outset of the revolution...after an angry mob stormed it, killed some guards and released the prisoners (months after, actually, but that's another story altogether). That's kind of what the whole Bastille Day celebration is about--the, uh, storming of the Bastille, which ended up being bad for the building's structural integrity. Or, at least, that explains why the national celebration in France happens on July 14. So, please, don't bug people in Paris by asking them how you can get to the Bastille. Visiting it would require time travel.

That little tidbit aside, one of my favorite things about France came out of the revolution. (Well, more than one, I'm sure, but this is something I like in particular.) La
Marseillaise, the French national anthem, was a bit of a war chant born during the revolution. It's mainly about the revolutionary French fighting Prussian and Austrian armies that were attacking France at the time, not so much about hacking off the king's head or putting Marie Antoinette (who really was so naive that she had no idea what was going on outside the palace in Versailles) to the blade.

La Marseillaise is set to a beautiful and familiar tune, and when a big crowd of French rugby fans hits the famous last part:

Aux armes, citoyens!

Formez vos bataillons!

Marchons, marchons!

Qu'un sang impur

Abreuve nos sillons!

before or during a match, the experience is absolutely magnificent, enough to dampen the eye of even the most committed Francophobe (or Frenchie hater, or Englishman, or whatever). It's seriously a goose-bump event. But what is the crowd actually singing? Well, en anglais, it goes a little something like this:

To your arms, citizens!

Form your battalions!

Let's march, let's march!

So that impure blood

May water our hedgerows!

Eww! Yeah, and it actually gets worse. The song has many, many verses (the bit above is just the chorus), and some of them easily go beyond the PG-13 barrier. It's a bloody song about a bloody period in the history of a country that has a bloody past--even by European standards.

But at the modern heart of it, July 14 isn't about terror or brutality or even really about the Bastille or the French Revolution. It's about being French and loving it, or at least it's about loving France. I do love France, usually. I mostly liked living there, and I liked visiting there again last summer. I still have some good friends there. I've had some great times there. I hope to have more.

Oh, France has its (really big) problems and always has, but like July 4, July 14 is about celebrating a way of life. France is, after all, a nation that, through tumult, tragedy, many military defeats and even a few triumphs, has managed to give us andouillette sausage, Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, foie gras, and the finest pastries on earth. Now that's a country with its priorities straight. Seriously... Fireworks!

And now, if you'll indulge me, I'll share a little Bastille Day nostalgia of my own. The July 14 parade in Paris is surprisingly military in nature, with all kinds of tanks and such barreling down the city's famous avenues. When I lived in Paris, I used to watch the military might of France go right by my apartment.

After the parade--which always took place in the morning--was over, the tanks and other big, green vehicles would head to...well, wherever they were going, and pass right in front of my building. (No doubt they were headed somewhere where they'd be stored and not used again for another year, heh heh...OK, that's a little unfair, as the French have been with the US and its allies in Afghanistan from the beginning. But I digress.)

I could stand on my balcony overlooking the Boulevard Pershing and get my own little private version of the parade, quieter and less crowded than the public one but honestly no less of a thrill for me. It was as if I had the French military on parade all to myself--and, yes, I know how many jokes that comment could spawn. But it really was pretty cool.

It's hard for me to think sometimes that Paris used to be my daily life, that seeing the Arc de Triomphe--which wasn't far from where I lived--or the Eiffel Tower was routine (although I always made it a point to appreciate the beauty of Paris and never got tired of it), that I could stroll in the Luxembourg Gardens or sit in the lovely little Parc Monceau almost whenever I wanted...that I took out the garbage, showered, vacuumed, worked, ate, drank, cooked, walked, played rugby, slept, surfed the Web, argued, chatted and laughed in Paris because I lived there. All the time. Every day. Without thinking that I'd ever leave.

But I did leave (now, that's a long story), and in the end, it was for the best. I'm happier now than I was then, and I do like living in Boston in general and in Waltham in particular. I have an incomparably wonderful wife and the best friends anybody could ever have. I have a job as a journalist, which is what I always wanted to be. My parents in Texas are no longer an 11-hour flight away. I have a great life.

There are days, though, when I miss Paris dearly, when it seems almost incomprehensible that July 14 could have once again become just another Tuesday, as it was today. I didn't realize until about noon today that it was July 14, the day of la Fete Nationale. And that's why I'm rambling on in this post. I just wanted to celebrate a little bit. It may be July 15 in Paris by now, but for me, the day of glory has arrived--a bit late. And I'm just going to sit back, daydream, mull over some good memories and enjoy it for a while. C'est tout.

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